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Violet Vivienne (“Vivi”) Goonewardena, pioneer socialist and idiosyncratic feminist, died in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 3rd 1996. Born on September 18th 1916 into an affluent, upper caste, and conservative family, her life and politics were shaped by the most interesting times of the Sri Lankan Left and she was in turn one of its more colourful personalities.

She was drawn into politics while still in school (at Musaeus College) through the Suriya Mal movement when in 1933 anti-imperialists and nationalists launched the sale of local flowers as an alternative to poppies with the slogan “against slavery and poverty and for freedom and prosperity”. As Head Girl she was to recruit her entire school to this cause. It was from this mass campaign that the Lanka Sama Samaja Party was forged in 1935.

Vivi was exposed to the ideas and activities of the socialist movement initially through her maternal uncles, Philip and Robert Gunawardana, themselves leaders of the Left. With their support, she defied her father and was among that then small group of women to enter University – completing her studies against his best efforts to frustrate her.

Her growing involvement with the LSSP brought her into regular contact with Leslie Goonewardena, with whom she fell in love. He was a graduate of the London School of Economics, a rising star of the Party, and later to be one of its central leaders and chief propagandists including author of its official history.

The match was opposed by her father as Leslie belonged to a lower caste and was a revolutionary under surveillance by the British colonial regime. However Vivi persisted, and following judicial intervention, was married to Leslie in 1939.

The LSSP opposed the Second World War and its activists were leading strike movements against the British. The Party was banned and its leaders imprisoned or forced to go underground. To evade arrest Leslie Goonewardena and others including Vivi escaped to India in 1941. There the couple threw themselves into the Quit India movement and participated in the formation of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI), a socialist organisation aligned with the ideas of Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International, in April 1942. They returned to Ceylon only in 1945 once the warrant for their arrest had been revoked with the end of war.

In 1948 Vivi was one of the initiators of the first socialist women’s organisation, Eksath Kantha Peramuna (United Women’s Front). This organisation collapsed shortly after when the Communist Party withdrew support for it as part of its non co-operation policy with Trotskyists.

She was elected to parliament on an LSSP ticket between 1956-60, 1964-65 and 1970-77 and appointed a junior minister in that last term. She was also on several occasions a Colombo municipal councillor and a life-long trade unionist, serving as President of the All Ceylon Local Government Workers Association until her death.

In 1964 she was among the most enthusiastic on the LSSP leadership of the prospects for the Left and working people in an alliance with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by the world’s first woman Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

In 1994 she was again to be an advocate for Left participation in the Peoples Alliance coalition government dominated by the SLFP and led by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

During the United National Party government between 1977 and 1994, Vivi regularly confronted the authorities usually leading demonstrations on International Women’s Day. 

She was particularly concerned during this period about the rights and treatment of women workers in the Free Trade Zones, and the social dislocation to families of migrant women workers to the Middle East.

In 1983 following a demonstration against the US military occupation of Diego Garcia she was physically assaulted at a police station. Her fundamental rights application in this matter was upheld by the Supreme Court in a rare act of judicial independence.

An early supporter of the Gorbachevite reforms in the USSR, Vivi pressed to no avail for the unification of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the LSSP, believing past differences to be precisely that.

She was a bitter critic of neo-liberal economic policies and the war in the north-east of the island, a combative presence and voice in any forum. However like her comrades her horizons had long since lowered. Defending the gains of the past took precedence over renewing and extending them. Socialism had become ‘an ultimate aim’.


B. Skanthakumar